The Fifth Sunday after Epiphany, Year A, St. Peter’s Church, Columbia

My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God (1 Cor. 2:4-5).

“Speech;” “proclamation;” “wisdom;” “power;” “faith”: St. Paul’s words pack a punch this morning. He’s writing because he’s heard that there are divisions in the little church in Corinth, and that members are choosing up sides. There’s nothing like a church fight, is there? Some people identify with Paul, others with Peter, still others with Apollos. Some people claim just to be following Christ: a familiar ploy in a church fight.

St. Paul writes to remind these fractious folks of the message: that is, the one he preached when he was with them. It’s the message of the cross: “we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Cor. 1:23-24). Paul tells them that he did not preach with “eloquent wisdom” (1 Cor. 1:17), because relying on merely human wisdom, on human cleverness in speech, would deprive the cross of its power.

We know that when Paul preached in Athens, the people who heard him called him a “babbler” (Acts 17:18), or spermalogos, a bit of Athenian slang for an idle person who lives off the land, picking up trash and what not in the market place. The word was applied by the Greeks to philosophers who picked up little seeds of knowledge here and there, idle folk who had nothing better to do with their time than engage in intellectual sophistry. Not too flattering for a philosopher, or for a preacher either.

St. Paul roots his own ministry, however, not in sophistry, not in idle chatter or intellectual gamesmanship, but on the power of God, as he says in our reading today. “My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom” (1 Cor. 2:4). Human wisdom is not the ground of the Gospel, nor the medium for the message. Paul as a preacher is not dabbling in lofty concepts but going right to the heart of the matter, to Christ crucified, “the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Cor. 1:24), as he says earlier. Preaching Christ crucified may seem like simple foolishness, maybe even at times like babbling, but that’s Paul’s ministry.

Why the cross of Christ? Simple: God reveals his power in weakness, the kind of weakness revealed at the crucifixion. St. Paul’s own ministry is an illustration of the way God works through weakness: challenged by enemies, buffeted by adversity, and seemingly unsuccessful in worldly terms, he continues to move forward (1 Cor. 4). Paul’s ministry keeps close to Jesus’ own example, proclaiming the message of the Gospel not only in his words but in the pattern of his life, where strength is revealed in weakness (2 Cor. 12:9).

For St. Paul, the life of the church itself, and not simply his own ministry, is an illustration of the cross. He reminds the little church in Corinth of some home truths: “Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong” (1 Cor. 1:26-27). Christians in Corinth have no ground for boasting, about who taught them the Gospel, about who called them to the work or who they’re affiliated with, because the power is God’s.

That’s where we begin this morning, here at St. Peter’s Church. Members of the church are being confirmed, received, and re-affirmed, but it’s not about them, or even about us. God is the One who’s at work here; he’s the One who’s brought us here and who’s giving us the grace to follow through. It’s not that we are so wise or so great, but that God is so powerful and good. As Paul says later, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my strength is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9).

This is the great contrast that St. Paul poses in our reading today: between human wisdom and the power of God. Our faith cannot rest on the first but only on the second. In Jesus Christ, God has shown his power, turning death into the way of life. Crucifixion leads to new life and resurrection. The preaching of the cross, for St. Paul, is an invitation to faith, to believe in the God who raised Jesus Christ from the dead. Faith is not something that begins with us, but with the action of God. It rests “not on human wisdom but on the power of God” (1 Cor. 2:5).

  • The Rt. Rev’d John Bauerschmidt, Bishop of Tennessee